Today, we journey back to the beginning of Western literature with the “Iliad.” Put into writing sometime around the eighth century BCE, the “Iliad” is the West’s first book. Since its final form, the “Iliad” has had remarkable relevance for each successive generation. And much of this relevance has to do with the subject of the “Iliad”—war.
The “Iliad” tells the story of besieged Troy, in which the Achaeans have launched an assault upon the great city to win back Helen. Here, stories of some of the greatest characters in the annals of literature are told—Achilles and Hector, Ajax and Paris, Agamemnon and Aeneas.
But beneath the great gods and the vaulted language of honor and glory, the “Iliad” is a brutal story of “men killing and men killed”—a refrain that rings like a bell throughout the poem. The slaughter drags on book after book after book. So when one asks, three thousand years later, why this poem of war continues to captivate readers, the answer may not be too complex: war is still, as it was then and as it is now, an everyday reality for the human race.
Indeed, war is one of the few things we still have in common with every generation that has walked this earth. Our perspective on war is perhaps different now. The machine guns and body-filled trenches of World War I taught us that winning glory in war is just an illusion—that, as the “Iliad” shows, all that’s left in the end is for both sides to bury their dead. The World Wars, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—all have been processed through the words of the “Iliad.”
And this continued relevance of the “Iliad” shows why, as far as I’m concerned, we read literature: to help us make sense of what it means to be human, to create new avenues of being in which we deepen our sense of ourselves and our world.
The “Iliad,” all these years later, continues to connect us with one of the deepest forms of human experience, in which we find ourselves wrapped with our ancestors in a shared history of war, suffering, grief, and, ultimately, redemption.
Tagline: “The Candid Reader,” written by J.T. Crocenzi, reviews books from all genres and eras to explore how literature has the power to impact our daily lives and help us live better.